A Spanish proverb says one should think carefully before choosing whether to become the mere tail of a powerful lion or the proud head of a tiny mouse. The Spanish government got approval from parliament this week to petition formally for NATO membership.
But many Spaniards feel more priority should be given to independent foreign policy with the Arab world, the Mediterranean countries, and South America.
And the opposition Socialists have turned NATO membership into a major issue.
An early October poll showed a slight majority (52 percent) of the Spanish public, including supporters of the ruling Democratic Center Union (UCD), opposed to the alliance. Only 18.1 percent favored it and 69 percent wanted a national referendum.
The Socialists say they will hold a national referendum anyway should they win the 1983 elections, which is a real possibility according to present polls.
They argue that NATO membership will not get Gibraltar back for Spain, nor will there be any express guarantee of protection for the Spanish colonial cities Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco.
Foreign Minister Jose Pedro Perez Llorca countered, ''Once in NATO, if the process of recovering Gibraltar remains stalemated, Spain will leave, but it will always be easier to pressure from within than in isolation.''
The opposition also notes that there has been no formal assurance that Spain will not accept passing nuclear arms through the country nor their installation on Spanish territory.
The government says that with its US bases, Spain would be a target in any Western conflict anyway and repeats its contention that it would be better to be in the Atlantic alliance and have a voice in itsdecisions.
The Socialists, on the other hand, claim the government sees NATO membership as the only way to get a better treaty with the United States.
Although some extreme rightists oppose NATO membership, probably because it presumably would thwart future coup plotting schemes, the Spanish Army does favor the alliance.
In the NATO debate the Socialists have merely put themselves at the head of the bandwagon of a more or less generalized 200-year-old preference for neutrality in international conflicts.
Like Socialist leader Felipe Gonzalez, former Premier Adolfo Suarez Gonzalez had been fond of the ''head of a mouse'' option of cementing Latin American and Arab ties. Premier Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo's government has shown a clear preference for becoming part of the lion, even if it's only the tail.